Chartwell, 1955— Here is one of the finest—as it is the most revealing—portraits of Churchill at Chartwell we can read, by the Oxford historian A.L. Rowse, who spent a memorable day at Churchill’s home.
It gives an insightful view of Churchill and Chartwell ten years after World War II, not without pathos and sadness, for even now he was beginning to reflect that he had “achieved a great deal, only to achieve nothing in the end”: a thought however inconceivable in his case, but worth pondering by us all. Read full article at Hillsdale College Churchill Project.
He welcomed me with old-fashioned Victorian courtesy, paying me the compliment of taking me for the professional, himself the amateur. I returned his shot by describing his Marlborough as an historical masterpiece….
At lunch he talked politics, politicians, the war….if the Germans had invaded the country and the government had had to scatter, he had it in mind to form a triumvirate with Beaverbrook and Ernest Bevin. For another: he had thought of a slogan to broadcast in case of invasion—“You can always take one with you.”
We talked of the sinking of the Bismarck. He spoke affectingly of how bad it was to wake up in the morning and hear the news of the sinking of a great British ship. “What was the name of that ship?….Yes, the Hood,” he said, tears in his eyes.
Then: “We had to get the Bismarck: the nation expected it. One admiral said his ship hadn’t enough oil to get to the spot and back again. I sent the telegram, “You get there and we’ll tow you back.” This reminded me of Hawke’s reply to the pilot warning him of the rocks and reefs of Quiberon Bay:
“Master pilot, you have done your duty—now lay me alongside of the enemy.”
Chartwell lunch: “Have some Cointreau…”
Lunch proceeded, rather burdensome for a teetotaller—I didn’t dare to be one, alone with Churchill. There had been Bristol Cream before lunch, a very good hock during lunch. I drew the line at port—port, at lunch! “What? No port? Then you must have some brandy.” (I can’t bear brandy.) “What? No brandy? Then you must have some liqueur with your coffee. Have some Cointreau: it’s very soothing.” I had some Cointreau: it was very soothing.
Slightly sozzled, I tottered upstairs while he read from my book, The Early Churchills. “Very good,” he chirped. Or, “Quite right….Quite right about James I’s execution of Raleigh: I have always thought that one of the worst blots against that—extravagant—sodomite” (this with relish at getting out the phrase).
I had been rather hard about King Charles I. More generous, Churchill said, “We don’t consider how much more difficult things were for them in the past—so much easier for us. We have all the ground prepared for us, civil servants to hand up the materials for us to make the decisions. Earlier, people had to cope with everything themselves, where we have specialists, a machine upon which things move for us.” It was salutary to have this original comment from a great man of action, who knew well from experience the difficulties of getting things done; I registered it—and reserved my own opinion of Charles I.
“To have been seduced at sixteen…”
But there was a better one shortly about handsome John Churchill’s affair with Lady Castlemaine: “To have been seduced at sixteen by the King’s mistress must have been an interesting and—[reflectively] valuable experience.” (See also “The Dallying Duke.”)
I left in late afternoon. Beaverbrook was coming down to dine and spend the evening, till then he was going off to bed. Evening sun poured from the west into the front door, upon the flowers, the head of Roosevelt sculpted in wood, the aged bulky figure waving goodbye.
I sank back exhausted in the lordly car, thrilled by it all, a last glimpse of the flag over Chartwell—and went back to Oxford to write it all down. It is only today, very many years after, that it occurs to me that he thought I would, and meant me to.